Sunzi and Sensibility: Stop Pretending Xi Jinping is Confucius
It’s happened again.
I was reading through the news of the day recently and came across an op-ed about the People’s Republic of China, which tried to understand the moves of the communist superstate in terms of the Eastern Zhou general Sunzi (Sun Tzu). The usual Sun apothegms were deployed; the PRC was portrayed as biding its time and gaining information about its enemies in order to strike at the hour of its own maximum advantage. Xi Jinping, it was alluded, must be flipping through the pages of the Art of War as he plots to take over the world.
And then, one day later, it was Confucius’ turn. This article was about Confucius and Marx, and why they would not see eye to eye in modern-day China. Again, there were the usual pithy Confucianisms, and the usual attempts to build an essay around a latticework of Spring and Autumn Period chestnuts.
I shouldn’t have been surprised by this. It is actually rare to find an article about the PRC that does not contain at least a smattering of China tropes. Most essays about China are, indeed, long marches through the Sino-clichés. Black cat white cat, a thousand flowers blooming, thousand-mile journeys beginning with one step. Bonus points if you can work in a pun about Peking duck.
Look. We need to stop talking about the PRC as though it were burnished with the classical glories of China’s past. We need to stop filigreeing the actions of the Chinese Communist Party with even the catchy aphorisms of its most famous leader, the guy in the crush-cap whose Mona Lisa mug surveys the Square where the CCP sometimes likes to machine-gun people who ask for the right to vote. There is nothing classical, or even communist-chic, about the Chinese government in 2020. It is run by a madman whose program for world domination has nothing whatsoever to do with China’s past. Please, stop validating the feelings of communist lunatics by lumping them together with other lunatics from the now-hazy classical, or even party-mythical, past.
Let’s get this very important thing straight about Xi Jinping. He doesn’t read books. Playboy, max. But Confucius? Sunzi? Are you kidding me? Xi has zero of the literary chops of Mao, zero of even the opera-fanaticism of Jiang Qing. Xi probably thinks the Thucydides trap, if he’s even heard of it, is an NBA move, and that the Five Relationships is a kind of aphrodisiac. (To be fair, I’ve seen photographs of Mrs. Xi—Jinping needs all the help he can get.)
I would be willing to bet a Shanghai-pirated Grey’s Anatomy DVD that Xi Jinping has never been in a library in his life. He is a straight-up dictator and it is essential that we stop essentializing him, brushing him into the background of the Chinese past in a way that would make Edward Said gasp like a startled pasha. Xi is as Chinese as the Wuhan virus—born in China, but designed to kill Chinese and then everyone else in the world once that’s finished. Xi has hijacked China, and it isn’t for the purpose of teaching Chinese history. The PRC is a parasite on the Chinese past, not an outgrowth of it. The more we calculate the CCP in the language of Chinese culture, the more we legitimate a tyrant. The sensible thing to do is to stop Sunzi-ing Xi.
As Said would say, let’s seriously drop the orientalism. We don’t analyze the gilets jaunes by comparing them to the Cathars. We don’t couch discussions of Narendra Modi in terms of the Bhagavad Gita. Did anyone seriously turn to their highlighted undergrad copy of The Iliad to figure out why the Greeks keep getting into money troubles with the rest of Europe? No. So why in the world do we think that every time we talk about Xi Jinping we have to endue him with the intellect of Mencius, the thunderous cunning of Xu Yuanzhang? Xi is not Qianlong. He is just your standard-issue gangster. Please. This is silly and it needs to stop.
The People’s Republic of China, let us remember, has been to Confucianism what Democrats have been to Baltimore. The most popular Confucianist in China today is Harvard professor Michael Sandel. Why? The communists wiped out all of his would-be competitors decades ago. It would be easier for Pope Francis to pretend to be a Catholic than for Xi to pretend to be a devotee of Master Kung. Xi and his ilk come to bust up a tradition and install a protection racket in its place. If you were having a conversation with Al Capone, would you begin by discussing Juvenal?
The regime the CCP has built in China is a bubbling, peeling mess of corruption engendered precisely by the anti-Confucian strengths of communism everywhere, namely graft, murder, and weaponized fear. The PRC government is filled with people who were able to rise to the top of this pile of knife-fighters. These are not folks who spent their youths learning how to craft an eight-legged essay. If you need a degree to get ahead in the CCP, then, just like in Hollywood, you simply send your man to go out and buy one. If you need a good grade, then you bribe the professor, threaten to kidnap his kid, or just slip him a fat envelope and bid him good day.
What you don’t do is read books and think thoughts about them. Nobody in power in the PRC today has any non-laughable claim to scholarship. Confucius would not have deigned to have Xi Jinping cart away his nightsoil. That’s no joke. So why in the world do we keep speaking of the Chinese government as though it were the legitimate heir to the Chinese past? Even Qin Shi Huangdi would scoff at Xi—where’s your terra cotta army, Pooh?
ISIS is not the custodian of the Umayyad Caliphate. Mussolini was not Caesar Augustus. The Nazis invented the whole business about their ties to the Teutonic Knights. And Sapa Inca or Tupac Amaru, I am sorry to say, have not been very well served by Marxists shooting up cities. Just as we don’t learn much about Boris Johnson by reading Jane Austen (Beatrix Potter, maybe?), we don’t learn much about Xi Jinping by reading the Analects. Not even the Little Red Book does Xi justice. The analogue is Dr. Evil, or someone equally cartoonishly maladjusted.
It is a measure of the success of communist propaganda, and a true testimony to the marvels of Chinese culture heretofore, that anyone thinks of history when thinking of ways to talk about the CCP. But China is a thoroughly modern horror, and Xi Jinping is Pol Pot with Chinese characteristics. We need to rectify the names and see China for what it is today: the manager of a gulag, the enslaver of more than a billion souls, and the overseer of the One Belt, One Road plan, which, totally un-Sunzi-like, is a naked power grab and world-historical imperialist overreach.
Jason Morgan is associate professor at Reitaku University in Kashiwa, Japan.